The Houston Astros are undoubtedly the favorite in the American League to make it all the way to this year’s World Series.
Even with the loss of their All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa for the next six-to-eight weeks and having been without 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel for much of the season, most experts, like MLB website columnist Jon Paul Morosi, still see them as the best the American League has to offer.
It’s also likely that Correa, who suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb on July 17, will be back in time to play in the postseason.
Similarly, Keuchel is hoping to make his return as soon as next week. He’s been on the 10-day disabled list since June 5 with neck discomfort and had not thrown for a month before preparing for his first rehab start on Monday. He pitched three scoreless innings for the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate, Corpus Christi Hooks, in his return to the mound.
On Wednesday, Houston Astros’ skipper A.J. Hinch said that Keuchel will need one more rehab start that will take place on Saturday. If all continues to go well, Keuchel will be back in the Astros rotation by Thursday. Keuchel said he only felt “regular soreness” and no real pain after his three-inning outing.
While anything can happen in the playoffs, meaning a second Wild Card team could (and has before) upset even the most highly touted team, the Astros and their National League counterparts the Los Angeles Dodgers are still given the best odds of winning the World Series because of their excellent regular season play.
The Astros’ current starting rotation without Keuchel has been pretty solid; however, ever since the beginning of the season, it’s been said that the Astros could use another experienced, All-Star-type starter.
After talks with the Chicago White Sox to trade for starter Jose Quintana came crashing to a halt over the weekend, as the left-hander was instead traded to the White Sox crosstown rivals the Chicago Cubs, the Astros have turned their sights on either the Oakland Athletics’ starter Sonny Gray or possibly 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner and AL MVP Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers.
Gray is of course the more fitting candidate despite the A’s and Astros both being in the same division, the American League West. A’s Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane has historically not liked to trade within his own division, meaning if he trades Gray to the Houston Astros, the Athletics will have to face Gray quite a bit next season. The teams in each division play each other 19 times each season.
Although Beane usually likes to avoid that scenario, the A’s are in full rebuild mode so they will have a young and talented team when their new ballpark opens within the next couple of years, and the Astros are the team with the most talented prospects that they can move without hurting their own club.
The Astros have six of baseball’s top 100 prospects in their organization according to MLB Pipeline: right-hander Francis Martes (No. 15), outfielder Kyle Tucker (No. 27), right-hander David Paulino (No. 44), outfielder Derek Fisher (No. 70), right-hander Forrest Whitley (No. 71), and right-hander Franklin Perez (No. 92). Paulino is a debatable piece of tradebait right now, as he is serving an 80-game suspension for PED use.
Still, five of the top 100 prospects in baseball to choose from? That’s very enticing even to Beane, who is ready to trade Gray while his stock is high.
After unbelievable seasons in 2013, 2014, and finishing third in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2015, Gray faltered badly in 2016, appearing to be just a shell of his former self.
He struggled with two separate injuries throughout the 2016 season and started the 2017 season on the disabled-list with a third unrelated injury. Is he injury prone? One can’t be sure, but his 5.69 ERA in 2016 lowered his trade value immensely.
Upon returning from the disabled list, Gray’s starts weren’t spectacular but better than anything seen in 2016, and in his last nine starts since the beginning of June, Gray has posted a 3.02 ERA, bringing his trade value back up. Plus, Gray has postseason experience, having faced off with Verlander twice, as a rookie, in the 2013 American League Division Series.
He also has a team-friendly contract. Gray is earning approximately $3.75 million this season and will be under team control until 2020. Assuming Gray remains healthy and pitching like he currently is, that is a great deal for the Houston Astros.
It works well for the Oakland A’s too as they would likely get a handful of baseball’s top 100 prospects in return for Gray. The A’s have a young team already almost assembled and are still building for their future.
Verlander would be just as good a bet for the Houston Astros as Gray. He was the best pitcher in the league in 2011 and continued to dominate hitters through 2013. The six-time All-Star struggled and fought injuries throughout the 2014 and 2015 seasons but returned to form in 2016, finishing second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
There are some major issues with Verlander’s contract which could deter both the Astros’ desire to acquire him and the Tigers’ desire to move him. For one thing, Verlander would have to waive his no-trade clause. This is usually a big deal for most players, but Verlander told MLB Network Radio in January that he is too old to be on a team that is potentially going to start to rebuild, so there’s a good chance he’d waive it to move to a real contender.
“Would it have been upsetting for me if we started trading away everybody? I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process.”
The second issue is the bigger one: his contract. While the Detroit Tigers are getting older and need to build up their farm system, Verlander is set to make $28 million this season as well as the next two seasons. He has a $22 million team vesting option for 2020 if he can finish in the top five in the 2019 AL (or NL) Cy Young Award voting. If he were to finish in the top five, his option would vest and he’d be guaranteed that money.
There is very little chance that the Tigers will be able to trade him without eating a significant portion of his future salary. Houston is not going to want to take all that on, plus give up prospects.
Other teams, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, the New York Yankees, and the Cubs have been rumored to be interested in Gray and potentially even Verlander.
So, while talks surrounding Sonny Gray between the Houston Astros and the Oakland Athletics have definitely begun to heat up over the last couple of days, nothing is yet set in stone.
[Featured Image by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]